Take a moment to imagine this: You are a U.S. citizen, a hardworking productive citizen whose job requires travel to foreign countries. You are HIV positive. It doesn’t matter how you contracted HIV. Your gender, race, age and socio-economic class don’t matter. You are HIV positive. You take your medications, you know how the illness is transmitted. You are healthy otherwise. You don’t have tuberculosis or any other casually transmitted disease.
And no other country in the world will let you in. Never mind that the country that won’t let you has plenty of its own citizens with HIV, the incidence of HIV is rising and they cannot get the disease under control in their own country.
Does this make any sense to anyone?
Yet, since 1987, the United States has had a ban on allowing foreign travelers into the country that have HIV. The ban started with Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) and led to one of the most restrictive and controversial travel bans in history. Scientists and health organizations continued to argue that the policy made no sense. HIV is transmitted only through the exchange of bodily fluids, as opposed to an illness like tuberculosis or H1N1 that can be caught through surfaces and coughing.
President Obama just recently lifted this travel restriction and already we are seeing the right wing criticize him. Perhaps they should have paid attention when President Obama thanked President Bush for beginning this reform in the year 2008. That’s right folks. We have President George W. Bush to thank. Furthermore, we do not have President Clinton to thank. Don’t believe me? Let’s have a little history lesson, brought to you by The Society for Historians of Foreign Relations or SHAFR.org.
In 1988, the World Health Organization argued that restrictive travel and immigration policies directed at people with HIV were irrational and without public health justification. In 1990, when U.S. immigration officials barred HIV-positive foreigners en route to the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, over 70 organizations of many nationalities, including the International Red Cross, the British Medical Association, and the European Parliament, boycotted the meeting.
In January 1991, the Centers for Disease Control called for the removal of HIV and all medical conditions other than active tuberculosis from the exclusions list. But the proposal triggered outrage among Christian conservatives who orchestrated a mass mailing campaign opposing the removal of the HIV-provision. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Representative William Dannemeyer (R-CA) and sixty-six fellow Republicans signed a public letter opposing the CDC recommendations. Finally, the Public Health Service argued that because Congress adopted the HIV travel ban in the 1987 Helms Amendment, only Congress could invalidate the HIV exclusion. In March 1993, President Bill Clinton signed legislation codifying the exclusion of HIV-positive aliens, thus violating a campaign promise.
For the next 15 years, the United States had one of the most restrictive policies on the immigration and travel of HIV-positive people in the world. It compelled all non-citizens to attest that they were HIV-negative before being admitted to the United States for any reason – despite the obvious impossibility of enforcing this provision. At the same time, non-citizens living long-term in the United States were denied permanent resident categorization solely on basis of their HIV-positive status. The U.S. government clung to policies suffused with the ignorance and bias toward HIV-positive people illustrated at the earliest stages of the AIDS pandemic. It disregarded the fact that for almost 25 years, it has been common medical knowledge that one cannot contract or transmit HIV casually. AIDS activists asserted that the HIV bar dissuaded immigrants unsure of their HIV status from getting tested; prompted HIV-positive immigrants not to seek to medical treatment until they had full-blown AIDS; and caused HIV-positive people seeking visas to lie on their applications and then enter the U.S. without their medications – situations posing exactly the threats to public health the 1987 ban aimed to prevent.
On July 17, 2008, roughly two weeks after the death of Jesse Helms – the champion of the HIV ban, the Senate voted 80 to 16 to repeal the exclusion. The repeal passed the House by a vote of 308 to 116 shortly thereafter. On July 30, Bush signed the PEPFAR legislation spending $50 billion over the next five years to fight AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in developing nations.
Jesse Helms is well known for his bigoted attitudes toward blacks and the LGBT community. It is interesting that two weeks after his death, this issue was addressed? This just goes to show how much influence one man can have. It also reveals, yet again, how right wing religious conservatives are unable or unwilling to comprehend science. How ironic and dangerously sad is it that these are the same people who refuse to teach their children that condoms prevent the spread of STDs and pregnancy?
Surely the only motivation to keep this ban was prejudice, discrimination and ignorance. Thank you Presidents Bush and Obama for doing the right thing.
geekgirl: Jude is a straight woman, a mom and has been married for 32 years to the same wonderful man. She believes in Buddhism and attends the United Church of Christ. She is a molecular biologist, her best friend is a lesbian, and she believes that every human deserves equal rights, respect and a life free from hate, fear and discrimination. The only thing she hates is pickles. Her science blog can be found at LGBT Latest Science.